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The reputation of Wilson as a source of standout football officials has rarely been more evident as this month. On Saturday, Babe Allen will enjoy a career highlight as part of the seven-man crew officiating the 82nd annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Meanwhile, some 200 miles northeast in Chapel Hill, three of Allen’s Coastal Plain Football Officials Association cohorts — Rob Weatherford, Shannon Davis and Chris Davis — will be in stripes as part of the crew for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship game at Kenan Stadium.
Last Saturday in Philadelphia, Harry Tyson, who got his start as a high school official 27 years ago, was the field judge for the 119th Army-Navy football game, one of the oldest and most celebrated rivalry match-ups in all of college football.
“It just says that we’ve got a lot of good officials in our group,” said Mike Webster, the assigner for the Coastal Plain and a college and high school official himself. “Their commitment and their work ethic and their dedication.”
While the tradition of Wilson football officials goes back to men such as Bo Hackney, Jim Pfohl and Bill Davis at the collegiate level and Harry Helmer Sr., Jim Hemby, Red Barrett and Ronald Percise at the high school level, there is a feeling that with so many quality officials now spreading over several generations that it is now a golden era here.
“You’ve got to hold yourself up to par to uphold the Wilson name with so many great officials that’s come out of Wilson,” Allen said.
Weatherford, the “junior” member of the group calling games this weekend, said: “We like to think that we’ve got some of the strongest officials in North Carolina and not just the eastern part. We’ve got some great leadership in that group, too.”
THE ‘SUPER BOWL’
With 30 years of calling high school games under his belt, Allen has as much experience calling high school games as just about anyone in the Coastal Plain association. He’s called three state championship games, including the 3-A title game a year ago. But the Shrine Bowl assignment is considered the top of the heap by the 59-year-old, who has been a high-level college baseball umpire for many years as well.
“That’s your goal because once I got into high school football, basically the Shrine Bowl is what I call the Super Bowl of high school football,” said Allen, who has worked nearly every football official position, but will serve as the side judge.
“To me, I think this is a higher level game than a state championship because you’ve got the top prospects from North and South Carolina all on one field. To me, that’s pretty strong.”
Allen, who was a high school basketball referee for many years, is the assigner for the Eastern Plains Athletic Association, which supplies high school baseball umpires in the area. He climbed the ranks in baseball, having moved up to umpire in as many as six NCAA Division I conferences, including the ACC. However, Allen said that he decided years ago that he would remain a high school football official.
“I kept from calling college football because I knew I wanted to watch my kids play high school football,” he said.
He credited Webster, along with his long-time colleagues Harry Helmer Jr. and Charlie Bedgood, for helping him along the way.
“We’ve had some great guys in this association that are definitely the backbone of the Wilson crew,” Allen said. “The good thing about having the guys from Wilson. When we go to a ball field, we get such a great welcome from so many coaches because they know if you’re from Wilson, they’re going to get a great called ball game.”
Weatherford, in his 16th season of officiating high school games, is looking forward to his first state championship duty. He and the Davis brothers, each of whom will be making their third state final calls, will be on the field Saturday as Jacksonville faces Charlotte Catholic for the 3-A title.
“That’s two of the best in what we do, for sure. Both Shannon and Chris are extraordinary officials, so I feel great having them in my corner,” said Weatherford, who will serve as the “white hat,” or referee. “This is the ultimate experience for an official on the high school level so I’m pretty excited about it and I’m pretty excited about the crew of guys that I’m going to officiate this game with.”
For Chris Davis, who called state championships in 2003 and 2014, there’s no less excitement.
“Each time it’s always like your first time. It’s the last game of the year and that’s the game everybody wants to work,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every one of them.”
Weatherford and Davis were part of the crew that called the 4-AA Eastern championship game between host Wake Forest and Pinecrest last Friday night in preparation for their state championship assignment.
Shannon Davis, who worked state finals in 2003 (part of the crew that included Allen and his brother) and 2012, was added to the crew when Harold Finn of Williamston suffered an ankle injury in the semifinals game.
“He’s a great guy and I hate to see him go down,” Chris Davis said of Finn, “but to pick Shannon up with his years of experience and his knowledge, is definitely a big pick-up for us to have him on the crew. So I’m excited and that he’s my brother makes it even better.”
The Davis brothers were a big part of Hunt High’s state 4-A baseball runner-up team in 1989 before going on to play baseball at Barton. Chris Davis said that he became involved as a high school football official shortly after graduating from Barton in 1993 when Webster approached him about it. At first, Davis said he protested that he wasn’t a football player but Webster assured him he could do the job.
“It takes time and it seemed like it took time for me to get comfortable,” said Davis, now 48. “I still get butterflies, even after 25 years.”
Shannon Davis, who umpired high school baseball for many years, said that with age, comes knowledge.
“The older you get, I guess the game slows down for you the more snaps you get,” said the 46-year-old. “I can remember when the high school game was quicker than you could comprehend what was going on. Then, as the more snaps you get and the older you get, the game slows down.”
Of course, the years of playing sports and officiating starts to take its toll.
“Harry (Helmer Jr.) used to say, ‘Every year, the kids stay the same age and we get a year older!’” Shannon Davis quipped.
Shannon Davis, who has worked as a “white hat” for the last five years of his 24-year career, will be the field judge Saturday while Chris will be in his usual position as head linesman.
Weatherford will be wearing the white hat.
“I just want to go out and enjoy the experience and watch these guys play football and just enjoy that whole atmosphere,” he said.
For Tyson, the atmosphere Saturday was unlike any he had experienced in his long career of calling football games at the high school, NCAA Div. II and Div. I levels, including two ACC championship games and several bowl games.
“Certainly everything that goes around the college football game is amped up in Army-Navy,” he said. “The competition and rivalry and the pageantry that goes on in the Army-Navy game. … It’s a huge honor to work the Army-Navy game and all the important people around that game.”
Tyson said he was about 25 feet from the coin toss, which was done by President Donald Trump. But Tyson walked out on the field with the Navy captains alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Tyson said that he started out calling high school games in 1991 with Webster and fellow Wilson official Tim Cobb, who recently retired from calling college football.
“Those two guys were a big influence on getting me into college football and helped me get into college football,” Tyson said.
He started in the Div. II South Atlantic Conference and moved to the FCS Southern Conference in 2005 and then into the ACC in 2011.
“You’ve got to pay your dues in college football to move up,” he said. “There’s a lot of travel to get from Division II to Division I and to even make it to the ACC. There’s a lot of dues paid, driving at 1:30 in the morning and stuff like that. There’s a lot of good officials who said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”
Tyson said the high level of scrutiny surrounding college football creates some challenges.
“The people know your name, they know where you live,” he said. “Social media, they’ll find you. You’ll get a random email or they find out where you work. But that’s not the bad part of it, the scrutiny level.
“I don’t always tell people where I’m going on weekends. I joke that I don’t want them to see me make a mistake on national television.”
But there’s an upside, Tyson added.
“That scrutiny does create a desire to be prepared when you’re out there on Saturday afternoons!”
He’s excited that his 20-year-old son, Matthew, is following in his footsteps as a high school football official — part of the next wave of Wilson officials.
Harry Tyson credited Helmer for holding meetings each spring and summer to help the Wilson officials stay up to date on rules and mentor the younger officials.
“I think there is a tradition that we want new people to come in every year and we’re going to help them be better officials,” he said. “That doesn’t happen every year. I think that goes all the way back to Bo Hackney and Ronald Percise and Harry Helmer Sr. and the whole crowd.”